In this podcast (episode #288) and blog, I am going to talk about identity and its relationship to mental health, and how our environment shapes and impacts our individuality. I decided to do this episode in response to the many messages and emails I get from people who are struggling with low self-esteem—people who feel that their identity has been crushed or stolen by the challenges they have faced.
Why is identity so important? An identity crisis cuts to the core of your being and value, which will impact what you think, say and do. It can, if left unmanaged, severely affect your overall wellbeing, and should be addressed sooner rather than later.
Our identities are developed and shaped by our connections with others, our experiences and impact we as individuals make in our world. If we are not actively thinking about and shaping our identity, we will be shaped by the world around us, which, in turn, can affect our unique sense of self and mental health. To quote Christopher Fuchs, one of my favorite quantum physics theorists, “it’s not about you; it’s about you in the world”.
Always remember, there is something you can do that no one else can do. Each of us thinks, feels, and chooses in a unique way, which produces our singular thoughts and experiences—I call this the “I-factor”. The framework that is laid down in our genes is influenced by our upbringing (nurture), but activated by our I-factor. This combination results in our unique worldview, beliefs, communication, and behavior—our identity.
When we’re functioning in and organically growing our identity (because we are always changing!), we tend to be filled with inspiration, creativity, excitement, peace, and kindness. Even though our life is not free of challenges, we’re more self-regulated, compassionate, and calm—we feel that we have purpose, direction and hope.
On the other hand, when we are just being shaped by the world around us – by people’s expectations, social media, cultural dictates, toxic relationships, negative influences and so on – we can lose our sense of self and start experiencing emotions like bitterness, resentment, rage, anxiety, worry, self-pity, envy, pride, jealousy, cynicism, and hopelessness. An identity crisis like this is, at its heart, an existential crisis. It’s something you must face and deal with because it cuts to the core of your being and will impact what you think and how you behave.
When your identity is threatened, this can be reflected in the brain as an imbalance or lack of coherence, which will impact your cognitive functioning. In fact, when someone is going through an identity crisis, we see this reflected in the brain as low cognitive activity in the frontal lobe and pockets of high beta energy across the temporal lobe. This means that the nonconscious mind is trying to dissipate the toxic energy to restore some sense of balance, which will make you feel pretty bad about yourself, and, most likely, you won’t react well in a challenging situation.
As the neuroscientist Peter Sterling describes this in his book Principles of Neural Design (2015), each individual has their own unique, specialized areas in the brain, which is the basis of their unique identity. This partly explains why some individuals are born with innate talents, like Mozart—he came out of the womb with that “special something” in him.
You also came out the womb with a “special something”. No one can compete with you because you have no equal. Your individual specialization contributes to the group success. You don’t need to be jealous, envious or knocked down by other’s opinions of you; if you get a hold of the truth of your core identity, the power of your I-factor, you can live life with an enhancement mindset, as opposed to a competitive mindset.
And, by learning how to mind-manage your identity daily, you can train yourself to embrace and shape your sense of self—on YOUR terms. You will learn how to recognize your warning signals and discomfort zones, which will pop up as quiet, prompting messages from the nonconscious mind into the subconscious mind, telling you that something in your life needs to be dealt with.
If you don’t deal with these prompts, however, they can return to the nonconscious mind more toxic and disruptive than before, which can lead to accumulations of toxic energy in the mind and brain that will come out in other areas of your life—including your sense of self.
Of course, it is easy and normal to slip in and out of how we understand ourselves, because it’s really hard not to be affected by people’s opinions and the world we live in! We won’t always have a grasp on who we are and what we should do in life, and that is perfectly okay. The key is to have a mental plan in place when we do experience these moments of self-crisis so that that don’t take over and consume you.
Indeed, we can all benefit from a good “identity check” now and then. I recommend doing this using the 5-step mind-management technique I have researched and developed over the past three decades, the Neurocycle, which I discuss in detail in my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess.
I would suggest you use this technique whenever you catch yourself starting to feel a lot of bitterness, regret, rage, anxiety, worry, self-pity, envy, pride, jealousy, cynicism, or hopelessness. I would also suggest you do one a few times a year to check how you are growing as a person, because we should always be growing and learning!
An important note to keep in mind before you begin the 5 steps: identity is not a fixed “thing”. It is far more helpful to think of identity as a process or verb rather than a noun. Seeing identity as a noun can keep us stuck on the idea of finding one, elusive treasure, which can keep us stuck in shame or guilt because we have not found it yet and may never find it.
Now, on to the Neurocycle for an identity crisis:
Always begin the 5-step process with calming and refocusing exercises. These exercises align the mind-brain connection and facilitate the correct flow of delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma energy in the brain, which, in turn, optimizes your physiology and DNA. Remember, a lot of unseen and incredible brain, genetic, neuroendocrine, psychoneuroimmunology (mind-brain-immune system), and gut-brain things happen in response to these brain preparation exercises! And, over time, these repeated exercises can create neural networks (thought trees) that can be activated at will.
Here’s a great and simple breathing exercise that is guaranteed to help calm down your mind and body. It’s called 7–2–11 Relaxing Breathwork:
- Inhale through the nose for a count of seven.
- Hold for a count of two.
- Release for a count of eleven with a slow “whoooosh” sound out of your mouth.
- Do this 4-8 times.
It is also important to remember that dealing with identity issues takes time, so you will in all likelihood have to do more than one Neurocycle. I recommend doing at least 3, as each cycle is 21 days, and it takes around 63 days for a new neural habit to form with repeated practice, as I talk about in Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. I also recommend taking around seven to ten minutes total per day for all of the 5 Steps, or one and a half to two minutes per step—don’t spend too much time ruminating on the negative.
Remember, trying to fix everything in one sitting will not work. You can, however, use the 5 Steps for identity as a quick reminder if you find yourself thrown off by something someone said to you or something you saw, heard, or read—but only once you have practiced using the full version over at least sixty-three days! You need to build the network into your brain, nonconscious mind, and body (the three places thoughts with their embedded memories are stored), so that you can draw on this network automatically when you need it, and this process takes time.
Now, on to the 5 steps:
Become aware of your emotional warning signals, such as bitterness, rage, anxiety, worry, self-pity, envy, pride, jealousy, cynicism, or hopelessness. Gather awareness of any associated physical warning signals like headaches, heart palpitations or GI issues.
This is what I call the “mental autopsy” step, where you capture these emotional and physical warning signals and ask yourself questions to find the informational warning signals, that is, the information contained within the dendrites of this thought.
Here are some questions to guide your thinking:
- Do you struggle to find your meaning and passion?
- Why are you feeling this way?
- What has happened in your life to affect your identity?
- What are you good at?
- What have you developed in terms of your skill set?
- Has your identity been affected by social media?
- Do you battle with envy and jealousy?
- Are you spending more time on worrying about what others are doing with their life instead of focusing on and enjoying your own?
Here is an example: say you notice feeling a lot of jealousy in a certain situation. Because you are aware of this feeling, and you know and have heard certain things about envy and jealousy, you also feel guilt. With mind-management, you can use this complicated emotion to your advantage by asking yourself questions like: “What exactly am I jealous of? Why? What can I learn from that person I am jealous of? Why did this particular person/situation trigger my jealousy? How can I use this to inform my future decisions?” By doing this, you shift from comparison to curiosity.
Write down what you have reflected on above. You can do the Reflect and Write steps simultaneously if you wish. This is a useful way to organize your thinking and get to the heart of the matter and the root of your thinking!
This step a great place to start identifying and analyzing patterns in your thinking and behavior that could help you further define and shape your identity. Is there something you are proud of and want to see yourself doing more of?
It is also a useful step to start identifying flaws and common mistakes you may be making that are part of your identity issues. This is not a shaming exercise; rather, you are getting to know yourself better! Remember, our biggest flaws are simply our greatest strengths channeled in the wrong direction. You may have identified a recurring problem in your life, such as becoming impatient too quickly with others and reacting in an irritable way because you feel your time was wasted. Looking closer at this, you may notice that you are deeply driven by a desire for efficiency and effectiveness, and your strength could reside in your incredible ability to strategically think and direct people and resources. So, by noticing this, you can learn to channel this strength in a more positive direction, perhaps by creating schedules, for example. This is reconceptualization in action!
Not sure where to start? A good place is how you answered the question, “Why am I feeling this way?”. Perhaps you discovered you were triggered by something someone said at work that you tracked back to a thought you built as a child (a core belief you developed) when someone at school laughed at you and called you a name. Rechecking this would look something like: “What that person said to me was their perception, which was based on their assumptions and not the truth. The truth is that I do have value in the area of…”.
5. Active Reach.
What simple action or phrase can you say or do that encapsulates the work you did in the Recheck step? Once you have figured this out, create a reminder to prompt yourself to say it aloud at least seven times today, which will help you practice the new thought.
An identity Active Reach for day 1 can be as simple as “I am aware that looking at other people’s Instagram profiles makes me feel like I am not achieving my goals.” By day 2, this can progress into, “I actually feel quite paralyzed by looking at other people’s Instagram profiles, so I am going to not look for a week and see how I feel”, and so on.
These are progressive, daily growth reminders to help drive your changing brain in the right direction, and in doing so, clean up the mental mess!
For more on dealing with an identity crisis, listen to my podcast (episode #288), and check out my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
This podcast is sponsored by:
Athletic Greens, a daily all-in-one superfood powder that is by far the easiest and most delicious nutritional habit that you can add to your health routine today, while avoiding the need to take multiple pills or add complex routines. The people at Athletic Greens have simplified the logistics of getting optimal nutrition daily by giving you one thing with all the best things! To get one year free supply of vitamin D and 5 free travel packs with your order see: athleticgreens.com/LEAF.
Feetures, a family-owned and operated company that designs all their socks with a custom-like fit for peak performance, which means they don’t slip, they don’t bunch, and they certainly don’t give you blisters! They are so confident that you’ll love their socks that they’ve also given listeners of Cleaning Up The Mental Mess $10 Off Your First Pair of Feetures when you go to feetures.com/DRLEAF.
Framebridge, an amazing new service that makes it easier and more affordable than ever to frame your favorite things, without ever leaving the house. Add a gallery wall to your home office or send the perfect gift—especially for Father’s Day, which is just around the corner! From art prints and diplomas to the photos sitting on your phone, you can Framebridge just about anything. Order a custom gift for any dad in your life in minutes. Go to Framebridge.com and use promo code DRLEAF you’ll save an additional 15% off your first order.
NOOM, a great way to develop healthier habits, reduce your risk of chronic health problems, reverse disease, and foster a healthier relationship with yourself and others! I love using NOOM to keep track of my exercise routine and make sure I am eating well every day. For your special offer see: noom.com/DRLEAF.
2:30 What is identity?
6:10 How our environment can impact our identity
7:20 Perfectionism and identity
8:15 How our experiences can shape how we see ourselves and the world
8:50 There is something you can do that no one else can do
11:00 How an identity crisis can impact your mental wellbeing
18:25 It is about you in the world—not just you
19:05 An enhancement versus a competitive mindset: which is better?
21:00 How to manage envy and jealousy
24:00 Signs of an identity crisis
24:27 Identity and social media
25:20 No one else can do what you can do—no one thinks, feels or chooses like you do
28:30 Nature vs. nurture
28:50 What is your I-factor?
44:25 Why identity is not a fixed thing—it is a process
49:30 How to mind-manage an identity crisis and do an “identity check”
This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.